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November/December 2014

Policy manual updating leads to good governance
by Brian Zumpf

Question: What is the importance of continual policy updating on school board governance?

Answer: A school board governs through its written policy manual. By diligently updating the policy manual, a board can govern in a timely and responsive manner.

Two sections of the School Code directly address the role of the school board with regard to policy:

  • 105 ILCS 5/10-16.7 states “The school board shall direct, through policy, the superintendent in his or her charge of the administration of the school district…”
  • 105 ILCS 5/10-20.5 states that is the duty of a school board “[t]o adopt and enforce all necessary rules for the management and government of the public schools of their district.”

To maintain good management and governance of a school district, a board must continually update its board policy manual to reflect new legal mandates and changes in best practices, and to address district issues through new or revised board policy directives.

When updating policy manuals, boards are aided by other parties who have important roles in the policy update process: IASB, the superintendent and the district’s administrative team, and the board attorney. Each party’s involvement displays the importance of its respective role and why the role of a board in the updating process is the key to good district governance.

Most districts begin the policy update process with the aid of the Illinois Association of School Boards. IASB provides policy updates through its PRESS and PRESS Plus subscription services. Of IASB member districts, 65 percent subscribe to IASB’s PRESS service, which provides updated reference policies for a district to compare against its own currently-adopted policies. Close to 40 percent of IASB member districts subscribe to PRESS Plus, IASB’s full-service policy update service. With PRESS Plus the applicable updates from PRESS are provided to a district on its current policies in a red-line format. Regardless of whether a board updates it policies with PRESS or PRESS Plus, the updates do not become part of a district’s policy manual unless, and until, they are adopted by the board.

A superintendent and his or her administrative team are often the first to review policy updates. District administrators provide first-hand knowledge and expertise to a board as to how policy can better serve the district. District administrators review PRESS and/or PRESS Plus updates to make recommendations to a board about revising current or proposed policy language and about what district resources (money and time) will be necessary to implement directives contained in proposed policy changes.

A board’s attorney may be called upon to provide legal advice on matters of policy. In addition to other legal services, a board attorney can provide legal advice to a board if there are questions as to how policy content, either currently adopted or proposed in an update, will impact a district legally.

The efforts of IASB, district administrators and a board attorney in the policy updating process are important to provide a foundational base for the good governance of a district. However, without the wisdom and guidance provided by a board, the efforts of these actors alone may not result in good governance of a district.

 The role of a school board in the update process has many aspects. A board will review policy information provided by the advising parties, ask clarifying questions, discuss the policies as a board and, finally, adopt those policies that are either required by law or that a board has determined to be beneficial to district governance. A board must always seek to use policy as a tool to express and achieve good district governance. Elected boards embody the spirit of their communities and can use board policy to reflect a board’s values and experience. One way of doing this is to use board policy to delineate district ends – the mission, vision and goals of a district. Occasionally, in effort to better govern a district, a board may realize that it has no policy addressing an important issue. When this happens a board should work with district administrators, and board attorney as needed, to craft new policy language to address the matter.

A school board governs its district through written board policy. A board has the unique role in the policy update process of reviewing and creating policy updates that express board directives that are important to it, and that it believes will result in the good governance of a district. When a board embraces this role, and reviews and updates policy thoughtfully and frequently, it makes the policy manual a true extension of the board, and the updating process a key tool in a board’s quest for good district governance.

Editor’s note: For more policy manual guidance, plan to attend Policy 101: Maintaining the Board Policy Manual, a panel session at the 2014 Joint Annual Conference. This session will take place on Saturday, November 22, at 10:30 a.m. at Hyatt Regency, Columbus E/F.

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